The rise of cities in the 18th century
- Article by: Matthew White
- Published: 14 Oct 2009
Scene of drunkenness and debauchery from Hogarth’s Rake’s ProgressView images from this item (1)
Extract from the diary of Francis Place describing a morning in London, 1827View images from this item (2)
Population GrowthThe population of Britain grew rapidly during this period, from around 5 million people in 1700 to nearly 9 million by 1801. Many people left the countryside in order to seek out new job opportunities in nearby towns and cities. Others arrived from further afield: from rural areas in Ireland, Scotland and Wales, for example, and from across large areas of continental Europe.
The English SpyView images from this item (19)
Illustration of Billingsgate MarketView images from this item (1)
Pierce Egan's Life in LondonView images from this item (19)
Though death rates remained relatively high, by the end of the 18th century London’s population had reached nearly 1 million people, fed by a ceaseless flow of newcomers. By 1800 almost one in 10 of the entire British population lived in the capital city. Elsewhere, thousands of people moved to the rapidly growing industrial cities of northern England, such as Manchester and Leeds, in order to work in the new factories and textile mills that sprang up there from the 1750s onwards.
Street LifeCities streets echoed with the din of horse-drawn traffic clattering on cobblestones and the hubbub of people engaged in daily trade. Scores of hackney coaches cantered here and there while hundreds of carts transported goods back and forth. Sedan chairs weaved their way up narrow streets as they conveyed wealthy passengers to their places of business, while thousands of pedestrians hurried to and fro.
'The party breaking up' by Thomas Rowlandson, a depiction of a traffic accidentView images from this item (1)
Crowds and peopleRises in population added to the sense of confusion in many British cities. Crowds swarmed in every thoroughfare. Scores of street sellers ‘cried’ goods from place to place, advertising the wealth of goods and services on offer. Milkmaids, orange sellers, fishwives and piemen, for example, all walked the streets offering their various wares for sale, while knife grinders and the menders of broken chairs and furniture could be found on street corners.
The Itinerant Traders of London
Depiction of a street seller offering colourful boxes, from William Craig's Itinerant Traders of London, 1804.View images from this item (31)
ConditionsMany 18th-century towns were grimy, over-crowded and generally insanitary places to be. London in particular suffered badly from dirt and pollution; so much so that candles were sometimes required at midday in busy shops owing to the smoggy conditions outside. Many travellers noted the ‘smell’ of London as they approached from far away, and letters received from the capital city were often said to have a ‘sooty’ odour.
Alongside the stinking rivers and choking pollution of cities, open sewers ran through the centre of numerous streets. Gutters carried away human waste, the offal from butchers’ stalls and the tonnes of horse manure that were left daily on the streets. The roads of most towns and cities were unpleasantly dusty in the hot summer months and many became virtually impassable in the winter, owing to their muddy and flooded condition.
An Act for the better paving, cleansing and lighting the town of CambridgeView images from this item (2)
Street improvementsTowards the end of the century small steps were made to improve these conditions in cities. Several ‘paving acts’ were passed in London during the 1760s, for example, that resulted in the more efficient drainage and mending of roads, in order to keep local trade flowing. Regular street cleaning was implemented to ensure a clear passageway for traffic while hazardous shop signs overhanging streets were ordered to be removed.
Extract from an 'essay on the present state of our publick roads'View images from this item (4)
Late 18th century description of London's new street lightsView images from this item (1)
The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.